A moment with Director Harry Parker about creating a killer farce with THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG

Q: With this play, audiences get two shows in one—a hysterically manic farce as well as a suspenseful murder mystery. On the surface these are two seemingly disparate genres, but this script is proof that they have more in common than meets the eye. In working on this production, what have you discovered makes a great farce and what makes a great murder mystery—and what have you found to be the most similar or complimentary element that links these two genres?

A: It’s true that at first glance The Play That Goes Wrong doesn’t seem to have a lot in common with The Murder at Haversham Manor (the play that the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society is attempting to produce as the play-within-a-play in The Play That Goes Wrong), but there are, in fact, some similarities. The most crucial one of these similarities is this: the two genres represented here are (1) Farce (The Play That Goes Wrong), and (2) Murder Mystery (the fictional play The Murder at Haversham Manor). Both of these categories of plays rely very heavily on plot in their structures; they are each a series of compelling events which create the excitement of the plays.

Farce is defined as a comedy in which a series of incredibly silly and fantastic complications occur to the major characters, stretching the limits of credibility, but never quite slipping over the edge into fantasy or the absolutely impossible. The fun of a farce is to watch the characters struggle and suffer as their best laid plans are systematically trampled on by a series of amazingly silly, though not impossible complications. These plays are often extremely popular with audiences! Some contemporary examples are Noises Off (written by Michael Frayn), and One Man, Two Guv’ners (Richard Bean), and other classic farces include Charley’s Aunt (Brandon Thomas), What the Butler Saw (Joe Orton), Bedroom Farce (Alan Ayckbourn) and many of the works of two great playwrights who specialized in farce, Georges Feydeau (Hotel Paradiso; A Flea in Her Ear), and Ray Cooney (Run For Your Wife; Not Now, Darling).

Murder mysteries have a completely different tone from farces, of course, but they are also heavily dependent on plot. They normally contain a series of twists and turns, filled with both clues and red herrings, as the playwright creates a guessing game for the audience concerning who might ultimately be revealed as the culprit. Again, many of these plays have long been audience favorites! The Murder at Haversham Manor owes a lot to one of the masters of the murder mystery, Agatha Christie, specifically The Mousetrap (which has been playing in London in its original run for more than 70 years, and which has a planned Broadway production later this year). Additional successful entries into the murder mystery genre for the stage include Dial M For Murder  (Frederick Knott), Deathtrap (Ira Levin) and Sleuth (Anthony Shaffer).

Other kinds of comedies and dramas may emphasize richly nuanced characters, or contain thoughtful and provocative ideas or themes. However, farces and murder mysteries are usually populated by stock, two-dimensional characters, and these plays have as their overarching purpose an evening of exciting entertainment (hilarious or suspenseful), rather than profound insights. Farces and mysteries are about story first and last. The acting in these plays requires extremely clear choices to keep the unfolding of events, the storytelling, crystal clear for the audience. In rehearsal, we have worked hard to play one moment at a time in the play, never allowing the characters to assume anything about what’s coming next in the story, and letting each domino fall clearly, even as it knocks over the next one in line.

So, it’s rather fitting that the play that does indeed go wrong in The Play That Goes Wrong is a murder mystery, a surprisingly similar style of play.